Disaster: Breastfeeding Is a Life Line

Melissa Clark Vickers, Huntingdon, Tennessee, USA

Originally published Oct 2016, republished here with the express permission of the author.

Breastfeeding in a disaster or emergency

Breastfeeding can be a comfort and a life line in a disaster or emergency. Your baby is crying and you instinctively pick him up and offer the breast, and, more often than not, two things happen simultaneously: you both calm down. That surge of milk to your baby, and the surge of hormones and satisfaction of fulfilling his needs – whether for hunger, thirst, or connection to you – is comfort for both of you.

Comfort amidst disaster

Now imagine you’ve found yourself in the middle of an emergency or natural disaster. Natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, floods, and fires, often disrupt any sense of “normal” and “routine.” Power may be lost for days or weeks; access to stores, schools, and even medical help may be limited or even eliminated; homes and all the comforts we associate with them may be destroyed. In addition to these largely weather-driven disasters, there are emergencies caused by humans as well: wars, terrorists, and even governmental policies are creating emergency situations for families around the globe who may find themselves fleeing from their homes and homeland. It’s scary stuff!

Most of us fall into one of two categories: the people who look at what others go through during an emergency or disaster and think, “I hope that never happens to me,” and those who have had it happen to them. For families living in disaster-prone areas, where the threat of a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, or wildfire is constant, especially during some times of the year, the realization is that it could happen to them next. That’s a pretty sobering thought. We have little control over natural disasters and their impact and that is a hard reality. Humans do best when they are in control of as much of their lives as possible, especially when young children are involved. Instinctively, we want to protect them from harm, from fear, and from anything that disrupts their day-to-day routine.

Those situations are inherently frightening, and while your baby won’t understand what is going on, he’ll likely pick up on your intensifying stress and worry. Offering that safe haven at the breast can work its magic and help both of you manage the stress better. It’s the best way to reassure your baby that you are still there for him.

The human breast is an amazingly adaptive organ, and that adaptability can come into play if you find yourself in such a disaster. The basic principle of supply and demand works as always -the more milk you remove from the breast, the more the breast dutifully responds by making more milk. So if you have an older baby who also is eating solid food, you can step up your production to make up for a scarcity of food for her. And it is possible to bring back a milk supply if you’ve stopped breastfeeding, or even start a supply if your baby wasn’t initially breastfed. It takes some effort, but might be worth it in the long run.

Breastfeeding can save lives

Formula feeding in emergency and relief situations is difficult when the basic resources needed – clean water, fuel for heating, transport, and adequate storage conditions – are unavailable. In these situations, artificial feeding increases the risk of malnutrition, disease, and infant death.

If you are breastfeeding, you don’t have to worry about whether you have clean water or refrigeration or access to formula to ensure that your baby gets the nourishment – as well as protection from disease – he needs in the midst of chaos. Even the inevitable stress is unlikely to affect your milk supply.

With appropriate support mothers who have been breastfeeding before the emergency will be able to continue breastfeeding. Rather than feeding the baby artificially his mother needs food and water so she can carry on producing milk to feed her baby. Mothers may need support to re-establish breastfeeding as soon as possible if they stopped breastfeeding during the emergency. Those mothers giving birth during the crisis will need support to start and continue to breastfeed exclusively.

Breastfeeding in emergencies

La Leche League International has multilingual resources aimed at supporting infant feeding in emergencies: https://llli.org/breastfeeding-info/infant-feeding-emergencies-multilingual/

If you find yourself in the midst of a disaster, your first concern has to be safety -yours and that of your family. If you have small children, remember that in addition to basic survival needs, they will also need lots of reassurance that you are there for them. If you are breastfeeding, that alone will be a life – and sanity – saver.

Look for help from others – don’t be afraid to ask, and, as you are able, offer help to those around you. A shared experience can offer some comfort.

Humanitarian aid may be available to offer assistance. Humanitarian organizations  will often help get families to safer locations and provide at least minimum food, water, and shelter. They can help with possible next steps during an otherwise chaotic situation.

Recently LLL Greece has been involved in a humanitarian relief effort, offering support to refugee mothers. And see: Interim Operational Considerations for the feeding support of Infants and Young Children under two years of age in refugee and migrant transit settings in Europe from UNHCR, Save the Children, ENN and reviewers.  Watch Dr. Karleen Gribble: Breastfeeding A Vital Emergency Response.

Recovering from a disaster can take a very long time, depending on what happened, how much happened directly to you or your family, and how well you were able to maintain any sense of normalcy during chaos. You might be rebuilding a home, finding a new one (possibly in a new country), recovering from injuries, etc. And you’ll likely be dealing with the emotional aftermath as well. Your children will need extra love and attention, and more of that reassurance that you are there for them and will do everything you can to restore some sense of that pre-disaster normalcy.

Disasters are disastrous largely because not only do they potentially destroy life and property, but also because their effects linger long after the damage is destroyed. Breastfeeding can provide at least one source of normalcy for you and your baby. And while few mothers make a decision to breastfeed their newborns because of potential disasters, those who are breastfeeding if one hits will likely be especially glad they chose to do so.

Be safe!

Infant Feeding in Emergencies (Multilingual)

MELISSA CLARK VICKERS recently retired after nearly 28 years as an LLL Leader. She is the mother of two, grandmother of (soon-to-be) five, and helps edit the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) Mother Support for Breastfeeding newsletter. She also writes and edits for Family Voices, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping families  -especially those with children with special health care needs – at the center of health care. She was honored to help LLL Founder Marian Tompson write her memoir, Passionate Journey—My Unexpected Life [2]. Melissa credits LLL for helping her parent according to her children’s needs, and sees that influence moving forward in how her own children parent their little ones.